The buildup to the semi-finals has reached feverish pitch and it has been fun reading all the articles regarding the biggest match of the World Cup so far, the India-Pakistan clash in the semi-finals. Lets look at some aspects of the game in detail.
Indian team selection
The only possible change I see is Munaf being replaced with another pacer. The options for Dhoni are Nehra and Sreesanth. It is a difficult choice, because Sreesanth has not played in the middle for more than 1 month and Nehra does not inspire too much confidence especially after his previous two outings. Given that Dhoni's theme this World Cup has been of giving multiple chances to players before replacing them, I suspect that he will give Munaf another chance and not want to make major changes for such a huge game. The Mohali pitch should suit Munaf with good bounce and carry, so Munaf could get another chance. The others select themselves, unless there is an injury to Sehwag or some other player.
Pakistan team selection
Pakistan may also play the same team that has given them success in the last 2 games. But, with Mohali being good for pacers, I am tempted to think that Afridi may give one last chance to Shoaib Akhtar and see if he can test the Indian batting. The other choice they have to make is between the off-spinner Saeed Ajmal and the tall left-arm spinner Abdul Rehman. Since India have 3 left-handers in the middle-order, I suspect that Ajmal will be the choice.
India should look to bat first if they win the toss. It is a semi-final and Pakistan's weak point is their batting. So I would look to put runs on the board and test their batting.
The theme for India in this semi-final should be 'pressure'. The main focus of the team should be to create as much pressure as possible for Pakistan. They are riding a wave of confidence and have been performing above expectations. But everyone knows they are one performance away from imploding dramatically and giving it all away. If they have not done that so far, I believe it is because they have not been put under too much pressure in this World Cup. The one time they were, was by NZ and particularly Ross Taylor in the last few overs of NZ batting. NZ had scored 92 runs in the last 4 overs in that game and Pakistan looked completely clueless with the ball.
So India should look to attack from the outset if they bat first and even if they take a few risks, they should look to target their form bowlers and attack them early, just to see if they will give it away after that. Their form bowlers are Umar Gul, Hafeez and Afridi. Indian batsmen should look to hit a few boundaries off them early in their spell.
If India bowl first, the bowlers should look to put together lots of dot balls. Pakistan batsmen always look to score quickly, particularly their openers Kamran Akmal and Hafeez, and could play a rash shot if they are kept quiet. To that end, I would suggest that Ashwin continue to get the new ball as he seems capable of keeping the openers guessing and quiet with his variations. Their middle-order of Asad Shafiq, Younus Khan and Misbah are solid, but in my opinion, are a little slow in scoring and India should look to capitalize on that. Dhoni should once again do what he did against Australia in the field. Keep the good fielders close to the bat in the circle and prevent them from taking too many singles and twos and release the pressure.
Their lower middle-order of Umar Akmal, Afridi and Razzaq are X-factors and could score quickly and take the game away. But once again, they can be contained and taken out with pressure applied with dot balls and close fields.
One other thing I noticed is that Pakistan have 6 bowlers, but the other 5 players cannot bowl at all - Kamran and Umar Akmal, Misbah, Asad Shafiq and Younus. Okay, Younus can turn his arm over, but is a part-timer at best. What this means is, they are looking for most of these bowlers to bowl well and not get hit. If India can spoil the analysis of 2 of their bowlers, Afridi will be in a very tough situation to get through the 50 overs. And such pressure can lead to mistakes in decision-making on the field. I hope Dhoni and Kirsten have noted this fact and will use it in their plans while batting.
All in all,. it appears to be a contest between Pak bowling and Indian batting, and the team that holds its nerve under pressure, will win.
It is a semi-final between India and Pakistan in front of a full-house and on a pitch that will be good for batting and bowling. What more can we ask for as cricket fans ? This time also, I am not going to predict the winner. Lets hope for a good game of cricket overall, with no security and crowd issues.
For India, it is high time that Sehwag produce another big innings like he did in the first match. Also, given that the theme is pressure, he is the right man to exert maximum pressure on their strong suit, bowling. In my opinion, there is a good chance that he will do well in this game.
With the ball, Indian bowlers, especially the spinners, should enjoy the extra bounce of Mohali and if there is some grass on the pitch, as is usually the case, the ball should grip the surface and turn as well, which Harbhajan and Ashwin will enjoy. But I am not predicting any key performer with the ball.
My next post will be after the India-Pakistan game. Meanwhile, lets talk about it. I am sure all of you are as excited as I am. Lets share our thoughts and get into the swing of things.